A Clear Voice Amid Depression

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Thinking about recovery from depression often makes me dizzy. I’m trying to follow at once all the brief streaks of light from this roman candle mind. Each one’s gone before I can see where it’s headed, and I wind up chasing nothing. I have even asked myself, why get well?

There is so much talk of journeys or paths or steps leading from here, the place of pain, to an often hazy there, a place where the pain no longer dominates, or where a new life awaits you. There are journeys toward the fulfillment of my Jungian self, toward bliss through magnetized neurons, toward positive thinking, toward inner chemical balance, toward stress-free living, toward fit, lean and sweaty health, toward self-esteem, toward nurturing of my lost inner child, toward mindfulness, toward freedom, toward God. I’m reeling and drunk on a hundred paths, starting and stopping, striking out then retracing steps or, worse still, striding with confidence down a path that disappears in dark woods.

I suppose that at some time everyone has heard a certain voice within. In my case, it speaks my name, calling with total authority, as if to demand I come back from confusion. JOHN! It never says anything else and does not have to. Its tone resonates through every bone, its command instantly snaps on every sleeping nerve circuit in my brain. There is no resisting it.

Clear and commanding, that voice sounded again in the middle of a recent night when I was sizzling obsessively over something I can’t even remember now but that seemed larger than my life at that moment. The call of my name centered me, snapped me back from the mental hole I had been digging, but that was not the end of its impact. For then I realized I had to pick up one of the half dozen books sprawled on the night table next to me – a book of spiritual meditations. I had begun reading through it earlier but couldn’t really focus on what it was saying so I had put it aside. Now I started over, and the words went straight in. Each brief meditation offered a glimpse into the intense struggle by a Catholic priest to recover from a deep depression that had challenged his faith in God.

The book is The Inner Voice of Love
by Henri Nouwen and is subtitled A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom. So here was another journey, but the metaphor was not central to Nouwen’s experience. Instead of moving him neatly step by step toward his goal, the meditations probe and test the tenets of his faith, as he urgently applies them to himself. I had thought when first scanning through that he was addressing his words to the reader with a prescriptive “you” that I often find irritating in books like this. “You” must do this or “we” must remember to … Such directives often seem to come from the mind, not the heart and so I avoid them. But as I looked closely, I suddenly realized that this writer wasn’t talking to his readers. He was desperately trying to remind himself of the reality of his faith.

From somewhere inside him, a voice was speaking, and the urgency of his writing revealed the deep misery that he was trying to overcome. He does not so much assert as ask: is this really true, is this belief that I have written and preached so often to others going to heal me? Is my faith in God going to survive? What am I missing, what am I learning from this anguish, is it a test or is it simply the end of me?

What flowed into me with such immediacy and bright clarity was an almost word for word correspondence to my own struggle. Nouwen was reaching into himself for the strength – and faith – to come back from a loss that felt like spiritual death. Here is how he describes his life in this period:

“I had come face to face with my own nothingness … I could no longer sleep. I cried uncontrollably for hours. … All had become darkness. Within me there was one long scream coming from a place I didn’t know existed, a place full of demons.”

As deep as that depression was, he could still write – …writing became part of my struggle for survival. It gave me the little distance that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair. And so each day he wrote to himself the spiritual imperatives of this journal.

“Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. This is going to be a struggle, because you have to live for a while with the not yet. Your deepest, truest self is not yet home.”

“When you are temporarily pulled out of your true self, you can have the sudden feeling that God is just a word, prayer is fantasy, sanctity is a dream, and the eternal life is an escape from true living.”

“The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through. It is better to cry than to worry, better to feel your wounds deeply than to understand them, better to let them enter into your silence than to talk about them.”

“You can think yourself into a depression, you can talk yourself into low self-esteem, you can act in a self-rejecting way. But you always have a choice to think, speak, and act in the name of God and so move toward the Light, the Truth and the Life.”

Choice is the recurring word. He ends these reflections not in a glowing reaffirmation of his faith but in the awareness that his struggle will continue, that each day he is faced with a choice.

“Your future depends on how you choose to remember your past. Choose for the truth that you know. … You are not alone. … What is of God will last. It belongs to the eternal life. Choose it, and it will be yours.”

For me, depression itself is not a choice – it is a condition that seeps into me. The choice is what I do after it has taken over. I lack the clear faith and imperatives that Nouwen could turn to, but what I try to maintain is the will to choose some way out of depression.

Is that determination the key for you? How do you keep it alive?

13 Responses to “A Clear Voice Amid Depression”

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  1. Kathy says:

    Depression is not a choice. That is true. but have you ever found staying by yourself and riding the depression of a day or two to be helpful, to regather your strength before facing the world again, or am I deceiving myself here?

    • john says:

      Hi, Kathy –

      Riding it out used to be the only thing I could do. I never took medication before the Prozac era, and there were long periods when I was not in any form of therapy. And I’m talking decades here. When coming out of it – my spells seem to last a lot longer than yours – I’d feel great – until the next one hit. So that was never a very satisfying approach.

      I’m glad it works for you. You’re not kidding yourself – everyone’s different, and there’s no telling what will work. The thing is to keep trying.

      All my best to you — John

  2. Evan says:

    Thanks for alerting me to this book.

    I read Nouwen’s Reaching Out years ago and loved it. This one sounds fabulous.

  3. Immi says:

    Yet often we throw away active choices for the path of least resistance. But wow, life is better when we actively choose.

  4. John D says:

    Evan – Thanks for that title – I’m just getting familiar with the names of some of his other books. I’m going to get them as soon as I can.

    Cathy – Thanks for connecting here – and for referring me to Tom Wootten. I heard a little about his depression book and need to get into it. I’ll check out the website – thanks!

  5. John D says:

    Clueless –

    I’m glad you included reading your blog as helpful at times. It’s certainly helpful for the rest of us! I know how that hopelessness can wipe out all defenses against, but you seem to have a good support system. It sounds like that has pulled you through more than once.

    Thank you for being so open about your hard-won insights. All the best – John

  6. John D says:

    Immi –

    That’s a powerful thought. There are so many long periods I’ve lived through when I knew I was just coasting in a convenient direction. It never helps. Thank you!

  7. John D says:

    Svasti –

    The voice you hear is pretty amazing – giving you such clear advice about what’s coming! The only comparable thing I know is the instinct I have about situations I’m getting into. It’s always right, and when I do something different – as you find – I’ve gone in the wrong direction.

    I’m happy to know that your faith is a strong one. Like Nouwen you know that God is in all of us. I can’t say that I’ve gotten there yet. It’s still more of an idea than a deep belief. Thank you for discussing that here.

  8. John D says:

    Revellian –

    Your story and the methods you describe to pull yourself out of depression are an inspiration to me. I hope some day to have a fraction of the vitality and energy that fill your writing. Thanks for your help!

  9. Cathy Vaught says:

    This is such an important topic. It is so great that you are willing to openly explore it. A book that changed my thinking about depression and my spiritual life is “The Depression Advantage” by Tom Wootton. It is about the understanding we can gain by facing our depression instead of just trying to make it go away. Based on what you wrote here and the introspective nature of all of your writing, I think you will love it.

    There is also a website related to the book at http://www.bipolaradvantage.com and the section on results in the ‘advantage program’ section has some videos that are about what can happen if you keep on the path that you are talking about.

  10. ClinicallyClueless/http://ClinicallyClueless.blogspot.com says:


    Your picture is absolutely perfect for the way I felt reading this post. I could hear the cacophony of my own “voices” in my head.

    However, “John!” does not center me. LOL, but neither does my own name for I have not really connected with it I always think that something bad comes after my name is said. However, I will hear, my therapists gentle voice through all the noise sometimes or increasingly my own. It does seem that, at times, the noise doesn’t stop.

    I agree depression is not a choice for me. The choice is what I do now. I can increase it, decrease it and learn how to cope with it now. And, sometimes try not to let it take over, but it has permeated every part of my being. Or has it.

    In answering your question, my faith sustains me and is very important to me, but it is internal a part of me that often I am not mindful of. Sometimes, my determination is having the faith that it will get better, but it is difficult when that hopelessness takes over. Other times, it is hearing on a recorder, in my mind or reading reminders from my therapist that keeps me going or looking at the joy in my husbands face when he sees. Mostly, it comes from outside of me with is the most difficult as that is transitory and I am working on that being internal, but there are a lot of defenses and dragons to slay. So for now, I need others to remind me. Sometimes, reading my own blog works. And, sometimes I just roll over and go back to sleep. Bottom line we each have a little bit of faith and hope that it will get better because otherwise we wouldn’t be here continuing to try the best we can for any given moment. (((John D.)))


  11. Svasti says:

    I have one of those voices too… but it often says more than just my name. Often it says full sentences, other times it gives me a general sense of how things are gonna go down. It tells me things I do not otherwise know. Weird… but the thing is, its always right. And life is much better when I listen to it than when I don’t!

    So… yay to your voice for gaining your attention and getting you to pick up that book!

    Sounds wonderful really, a very interesting read…

    I definitely don’t choose my depression or the PTSD episodes. But I do choose to not lie in bed day after day, or find some way to obliterate myself – which feels very tempting sometimes.

    But for me, its not just determination. My spiritual nature is the other thing that’s important. I’ve been so fortunate to learn some very holistic philosophy and practices. So even when I’m in the depths, even when I’m lower than low and feeling like my heart has been ripped from my chest – even then, I can, if I choose, look up and get it – ahhh… I’m really not alone.

    I’m not rejected, I’m not separate. The Self is God, and God is the Self.

    I don’t always get to hold onto that as much as I’d like right now. But the miracle is, that knowledge keeps returning to me. Especially when I need it most. 🙂

  12. http://revellian.com says:

    In a sense, I’ve often asked the same question, “Why get well?” and perhaps I’m fortunate to have suffered severe depression–it’s made me–it’s shaped who I am now: highly reflective, creative and caring.

    My sister is a psychologist who specializes in reality or empirical therapy and has always stressed to me that 99% of my depression is choice–she doubted I fell into that remaining 1%. I so firmly disagree with her, though I have taken her advice to the maximum extent I could muster. Like you, I’ve never really had control of it, especially once it takes me down. I suppose I don’t blame my faith or lack of faith in God–I believe God has nothing to do with it–so my belief stays strong even in the darkest of days. But I have felt positive and strong lately, so I share it with you:)

    Have a great weekend John!

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